Monday, December 21, 2009

Saving Grace...

Let's talk about salvation...

I've been listening to podcasts from Jesuit Media Initiatives in the UK for the last few weeks. I mentioned this in a post a few days ago. These podcasts serve as a good meditation or "Lectio Divina" exercise for me as I drive to work in the morning. Late this past week I heard one that, among other things, made the point that we are incapable of saving ourselves.

That simple assertion gave me the opportunity to think about what we are saved from, and what we're being saved for. Let me share what my meditation produced.

In the first place, I think we're saved from ourselves. What I mean by this is that the "me" that yields to easy temptation, that relies on impulse or urge to determine his behavior, is the "me" that I'm being saved from. If left to my own devices, I would not be worthy of communion with God. As I indicated in my previous post, I firmly believe in my own incapacity to join in communion with God, and that communion is something I desire more than anything in life.

Communion with God is the way I describe what I desire. Eternal life, going to heaven, these are terms that are used to describe the same thing. By whatever name, I view this state of being as the ultimate goal of my life.

As I said, I am not worthy of that communion on my own. I believe that I can not bootstrap myself into a state of righteousness that meets the "entry requirements" that God mandates. It is this "me" that "I" am being saved from, this insufficient person that can't make the grade.

So, there's what I'm being saved from. But what's the point of this liberation, if that's where it ends?

Consequently, there has to be something that we're being saved for. I've come to the conclusion that we're being saved, or reserved or set aside, for the new us. I'm being saved for the "me" that God is creating even as I'm putting distance between "me" at this time in my life, and the "me" that existed when God crashed into my life.

I see myself as a work in progress. I made a decision over thirteen years ago that set into motion a whole new set of events in my life. In the intervening time, I can honestly say that I have never regretted making that decision. I'm far from being the perfect pupil of the lessons I have been given to learn. I'm far from having perfect attendance at the feet of the Master. But I have never regretted accepting the scholarship that gained me admission to the Master's school. My salvation is my term in that school.

One day I shall be ready for graduation. I'm even now being prepared for that. And it's that graduation that has been reserved for me. The "me" who receives the diploma is going to be different than the "me" who is typing these words. I can't say what lessons yet wait to be learned. I can say, with confidence, that I will have the best Teacher guiding and leading me.

So there's the product of that one assertion made a few days ago during a time of meditation. I am challenged, confronted, and convicted as I listen to these exercises and others that I have opened myself up to. I find myself being stretched to think about things that at one and the same time have both personal and universal implications.

What stretches you? What do you open yourself to that challenges comfortable notions and knee-jerk beliefs? What discomfits you? And when you find these things, what good comes from them? May we all have those things in our lives that do this and grow us in the process.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Manifesto...

In this Advent season, I thought it might be worthwhile to make a statement of what I believe as a Christian. Interestingly enough, I came across something I had written to a good friend just over four years ago. I've tweaked the wording just a mite, but this is essentially what I wrote to Ken back in December of 2005...

Since you're always willing to engage in intellectual questions about Christian belief, I thought it would be fair to give you some insight into my own beliefs. Consider this a manifesto if you like.

I believe that God created the world in a certain order, sequentially, and over a span of time. I don't believe that this was a literal six days. I don't know if the biblical account is for the creation of the entire universe, or just for our solar system. I believe that the theory of evolution as proposed by Charles Darwin is the best scientific explanation we have at the moment of the process by which God has covered this planet with life in all its diversity.

I believe that God is in charge of the entire universe. I believe that He has created each of us, and everything about us, in a single act of creation that includes the time over which we exist in this physical world. I believe that our concern for predestination vs. free will is an oversimplification of the universe from God's perspective. Since we can't see that perspective, I believe that the sensible way to respond is to act as though we have free will. I believe that to do otherwise is to fail to deal with the universe as it's presented to us.

I believe that Jesus the Anointed One is the only way that I may achieve a communion with God. I don't know if this means the acceptance of the reality of Jesus' personal sacrifice on the cross, or the fact that that sacrifice was made at one time and in one place for all. I believe it's wrong to tell God how He must go about bringing those He has chosen into communion with Him--read the book of Jonah for His viewpoint on that arrogance.

I believe that I need to intentionally work on my way to the communion with God that I desire above all else. I believe that I will fail to achieve God's required holiness on my own--that is what His grace is for. I believe that I need to be constantly aware of that grace, and my need for it. I believe that any thought I may have of my own worthiness of communion with Him is pride, and the gravest of affronts to Him.

I believe that His love is unconditional (extended to all) but that there is more to the world than that. I believe His judgment is also a reality--I may yet be permanently separated from my desired communion with Him. I believe I must earnestly seek to live my life as He has told me to live--to love justice, to be faithful, and to be humble before Him. I believe that He has my best interest in mind when He tells me how to live; I believe that I am loved.

I believe that I may yet see an eternity of communion with God. I believe that I will experience loss in this life, just as I've experienced joy and blessing. I do not believe that the only way that I may grow closer to God is through adversity. I believe that He will sustain me in those times when He seems far away, but I also believe that I need to continue to seek His face when the times are good, that He is the source of that good and I need to keep that in mind. I believe that the bad that comes is part of the fabric of His creation, that the path to communion is narrow and that it must be traversed with His help.

Finally--I believe that I can't begin to understand the richness of the blessing that God confers on each of us each day. I believe that, on my own, I am blind and deaf to His love extended through time and space, as His creation moves along its appointed path. I love this awesome God, this God Who will not be confined to my small mind or my limited imagination.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Currency Conversion...

Sometimes I don't think we really understand the depth of change that being a disciple of Jesus mandates on us.

I've started listening to a series of short prayer sessions, called "Pray As You Go," from, a website maintained by Jesuit Media Initiatives of the UK. The sessions are downloadable as MP3 files, among other formats, and can be used to help focus one's meditation at the start of each day. There are other resources available on the site, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to enhance their practice of contemplation and prayer.

As I was driving to work this morning, I listened to the session for this third week of Advent, based on a passage from the Gospel of Luke. The passage, Luke 14:28-35, contained, among other things, the following message:

"In the same way therefore not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."

I found that bit very troubling, because just minutes before, even as I was getting ready to listen to the session, I had been thinking about the economic house-cleaning that Jesus' new order seems to mandate. It was as if my thoughts were being prepared to hear something straight from the gospel, and once I was receptive, the message was delivered.

Let me try to unpack what I was thinking as I heard that passage, and as I thought about it afterward.

Prior to hearing the passage from Luke, I was reflecting on how our economic life is oriented toward the accumulation of wealth, the prudent use of that wealth, and the maintenance of that wealth. We have elaborate accounting systems for our wealth; we have currency exchanges for converting from one monetary system to another, for instance, just as we have complex markets that trade in the very currency itself, as well as in the things that it represents.

Our money manages us, in some ways, just as we manage our money. Our expectations of what we can acquire are controlled by what we can earn, save, borrow, and afford to spend. We do mental gymnastics over which high-def TV we really want, debating the value of various features, what size screen we really need, and so forth. Our goals direct us. Our desire for just the right "stuff" guides and focuses our efforts.

The availability of ready credit determines if work gets done, or doesn't. And how wrong can this be? How mistaken is this, in the real world? Look--the poor are poor, whether there is money for aid projects or not. The hungry are still hungry, the sick are still suffering illness, the oppressed are still being ground into the dirt by the oppressors. These realities exist regardless of whether or not someone can marshal the resources to address them. And what are the resources I'm talking about? I'm not referring to manpower, to equipment, to fuel for planes and vehicles, or for computer and communications gear. I'm talking about money. The money to address these needs is either there or it's not.

Is this rational? Is this acceptable to God? Is it conscionable to him that his creatures defer from aiding in a famine, or righting wrong, or healing the sick or comforting the dying, because they can't get funding?

I know it's not that simple. I know that the valuation placed on things is a way of managing scarce resources, so that needs and wants can be met with finite means. But I also am convinced that needs and wants are not the same thing, and that our finite means are a lot more abundant than we imagine.

Does anyone really doubt that every person in this world could be fed, if the production of the world's arable ground could be distributed more wisely?

Does anyone really imagine that all the children of this world would not be educated if the resources available world-wide could be placed where the people are?

Does anyone really think that human suffering wouldn't be affected and reduced if drinking water could be purified, or if sources of disease could be quarantined, or if shelter could be provided?

Does anyone truly think that people wouldn't live better lives if selfish dictators weren't stripped of power?

We have more important things to do with our money, of course. We've got to build up our armies. We've got to put up new sports stadiums. We have to put in more lanes on the freeways so we can support the increased traffic to and from the suburbs and the urban core.

"...not one of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his own possessions."

I can't get over the notion that most of us are pretty far from being true disciples of Jesus, as he himself defined it. Being converted is one of the hardest things in the world. What do we truly need to live purposeful, meaning-filled lives?

Even as we get ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus with gifts and presents, I can't help but wonder just how close I am to the one I call my Lord.

No Matter Where You Go...

"No matter where you go, there you are."
    --Buckaroo Banzai

That simple, even simplistic, phrase has been a favorite of mine for the twenty-five years since Buckaroo Banzai first hit the movie screen. While there was only the one movie about Buckaroo and his Hong Kong Cavaliers made, this bit of philosophy has stuck with me.

It's so simple, as I said, and yet so profound.

No matter where you go, there you are. What does that say about "you"? To me, the "you" that's at the heart of the sentence is that node of consciousness that co-exists in the same space as your physical presence. If you move a light bulb, you move the source of light that comes from it. The same here--your body moves from the kitchen to the bedroom, and your experience of the reality around you changes to reflect that move.

To speak of one's consciousness and one's body, as though they're two independent and separate things, may be getting things wrong. What if our consciousness is another dimension or aspect of our humanity, just as the particular shape of our body is? We name ourselves as human beings. We have a consciousness aspect, and a body-shape aspect. One human being, with consciousness and body simultaneous and inseparable.

What I'm looking at here is the difference between a dualism that separates our minds from our bodies, as though that were possible, and a view of humanity that sees the human being as a single entity, with aspects that manifest themselves in different ways. This is in some ways like my light bulb--if it has power, it will emit light, but the source of that emission will move as the bulb is moved.

Let's turn this phrase on its head, shall we?

Let's re-write it like this:  "No matter where I go, there you are."

What we have now is a statement that could reflect the traditional view of followers of Jesus to the presence of God. It's said in various ways several times in the Bible, after all; in the Psalms certainly, in various prophetic books, in epistles. Probably the most direct version of this occurs in Psalm 139, where David calls out to God:

"Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence?"

So what does this mean? Is God's consciousness everywhere, in the same sense that our consciousness is located co-existent with our bodies? Is God dispersed throughout all Creation, present at every point in all space-time? Or is it something a little different? Maybe it's like this--if the spirit of God lives in us, we're aware--made conscious of ourselves--God's presence in every place where we find ourselves to be. It might be sort of like a radio receiver that is tuned to the God-channel, and can pick it up everywhere it's placed. The entirety of Creation is filled with God's broadcast, as it were, emanating from the very being of God, waiting to be received by a properly tuned spirit.

I don't know what the truth is, in this instance. I can speculate about this sort of thing all day. All I know is that if I'm not looking for God, I'm less likely to see him about me. That doesn't mean I can't be surprised by his presence, but it's more rare. I do know, with great conviction, that since I was surprised by God and his interest in me those thirteen years ago, I've been constantly on the lookout for his presence about me. No matter where I go, there he is.